Of the roughly 125 people participating in the American Zionist Movement’s Biennial Assembly in New York on March 10-11, few appeared to be below the age of 50. Most, in fact, appeared to be long past the eligible age for Social Security. The event’s sparse attendance may have been an indication of how Zionism has become a dirty word for some Jews, particularly those who are young.
Even Meredith Berkman, a 50-ish mother of four and creator of the Zionista Project, admitted to not being entirely comfortable out on the street while wearing the T-shirts and baseball caps she designed as part of her attempt to “rebrand” Zionism and make it cool again. And she lives on the Upper West Side, which is probably the Jewiest neighborhood in Manhattan. If you can’t be comfortable touting Zionist love there, where can you?
The conference included some provocative programming that could have been — should have been — seen by young Jews who are interested in Israel.
The American Zionist Movement (AZM) has 29 constituent groups spanning the ideological spectrum, from Partners for Progressive Israel (formerly Meretz USA) and Habonim Dror on the left to the Zionist Organization of America and the expanding Herut North America, a secular group based on Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s ideology of Israeli imperialism, on the right.
And while a fair number of people representing liberal Zionist groups were present, including the Conservative and Reform movements and Ameinu — whose slogan is “Liberal Values, Progressive Israel” — the loudest voices audible at the conference came from those on the right.
It led me to wonder: Is there room today for progressives in mainstream Zionist circles, or has ardent support for the State of Israel been ceded to political right-wingers?
“While a fair number of people representing liberal Zionist groups were present … the loudest voices came from those on the right.”
Some progressive Jews’ enthusiastic backing of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who recently suggested that American Jews have dual loyalties if they support Israel or the lobbying group AIPAC — the third anti-Semitic remark she made in a few weeks — makes the question feel particularly urgent.
“The problem is that there are more right-wing organizations” at the conference, Sarrae Crane, executive director of the Conservative movement’s Zionist arm, Mercaz USA, said in a later conversation with me. “It’s the same issue as in the Presidents Conference, where the left wing is so marginalized that they just don’t feel interested in participating.”
Elan Carr, President Donald Trump’s recently appointed Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, gave the conference’s keynote address, which he peppered with Hebrew phrases.
“Anti-Semitism is emblazoned on my family’s collective memory,” said Carr, whose mother was born in Iraq. As a young girl, his mother saw her father arrested around the time of Israel’s independence. In Iraq, her father was marched through the streets with other local Jewish leaders in leg irons, put on trial and convicted of being a Zionist, for which he served five years in prison, Carr said.
His wife’s family has Holocaust survivors, including a grandmother who survived Auschwitz, he added.
“[The Jewish people’s] history is of being driven from one place to another, desperately seeking refuge,” Carr said. “How blessed we are that this is the United States of America, which, for all of our problems, is the most philo-Semitic country ever.”
Carr’s speech came on the heels of Trump tweeting that the Democratic Party was the “anti-Israel, anti-Jewish party” because its leaders declined to rebuke Omar specifically for her latest anti-Semitic remarks.
“My boss, the president of the United States, is absolutely ferocious in his determination to fight anti-Semitism,” he said to energetic applause and whoops from an audience containing many Trump supporters.
Carr made no mention of Trump’s missteps and dog-whistles to anti-Semites, as when the president said “there are good people on both sides” after torch- and gun-wielding neo-Nazis marched through Charlottesville, Va., chanting, “The Jews will not replace us!” and one of whom was later convicted for killing an anti-racism demonstrator after running her down with a car.
Ironically, perhaps, given the fact that three of Carr’s closest relatives (his mother, father and stepfather) were immigrants to this country, he did not mention Trump’s policies severely limiting immigration from the Middle East and Mexico, or his administration’s policy of separating young children from their parents as soon as they cross the U.S.-Mexico border.
Carr is a former Army anti-terrorism officer who served in Iraq before becoming a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles County, where he prosecuted violent felonies, including sex crimes and murders. Carr unsuccessfully ran as a Republican for Congress in 2014 and lost in the nonpartisan election for a seat on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors in 2016. Sheldon Adelson was one of his largest backers.
One of the AZM’s more interesting speakers was Rabbi Amitai Fraiman, director of Zionism 3.0, an annual conference launched in 2015 by the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto, Calif. The goal of the conference is to bring a Jewish peoplehood orientation to Zionism and direct it away from politics, Fraiman said. Some 1,100 people attended the most recent conference in December — nearly 10 times more as were at the AZM gathering.
Z3, as it is known, is considering franchising its model to other Jewish communities across the country, similar to the way the TED conference licenses groups to create their own offshoots, called TEDx. Franchisees would be required to adhere to rules like being inclusive of speakers who oppose the occupation, as well as those who adhere to a Greater Israel view; to confront challenging ideas in Zionism rather than shunning them, as so many Jewish groups do to avoid splintering; and to focus on what is shared between Israeli and American Jewry rather than the divisions.
Earlier in the day, Gil Troy, a historian at McGill University in Montreal and author of the book “The Zionist Ideas,” spoke about “The Future of Zionism in America.” He had lots of pithy but soundly rooted ideas for reframing what it means to be a Zionist in the 21st century, such as making Zionist education positive and pleasurable, rather than about obligation and guilt.
“I’m so tired of the heaviness, of starting every conversation with a crisis,” Troy said.
He suggested making it a tradition to eat ice cream for breakfast on Israel’s Independence Day, and instead of focusing Israel education on heavy intellectual and historical topics, talking about Israeli celebrities.
More seriously, he said, “We have to move away from political Zionism, from just defending the State of Israel, to now also using the state to build identity. We need Identity Zionism.”
Troy added that while Trump has poisoned the word nationalism for many by “putting his golden ‘T’ on it and saying, ‘I’m a nationalist,’ and my young friends run away,” that Zionist American Jews have to take back the term. “There is no Zionism without nationalism,” he said. “We have to fight the false cosmopolitanism of our kids getting to university and dropping their particularism to become citizens of the world.
“The new Zionism is based on the idea that we can sit down together and ask, ‘Who am I?’ using the building blocks of a 3,500-year-old conversation” rooted in Judaism, of which Zionism is an inextricable part, Troy said. “It has rooted me and rooted my kids in a story deeper than the ‘me-me-me’ impulses of the modern world. We’ve got to stand up. We’ve got to teach our kids” about the value of that identity.
Troy also argued for nuance and complexity in dialogue about Israel, which today is getting ever more polarized. “Too much of the Israel conversation is either the guilt trip, or we teach in too many Jewish day schools that Israel is this perfect place, all ‘Havah Nagilah’ and blue-and-white flowers,” he said.
“We need a new organization with a youth voice, pushing back and showing, ‘Wait a minute, we’re alive, we’re proud, we’re thriving,’” Troy said.
Unfortunately for all who care about the next generation feeling connected to Israel, virtually no young people were in the audience, listening, who could take up that charge.
Debra Nussbaum Cohen is the Jewish giving maven at Inside Philanthropy and is a freelance journalist in New York City.